Big changes are coming to Fox Sports on the production side. David Neal, their vice president (production) and the executive producer of their FIFA World Cup coverage, is stepping down after more than a decade at the company. His final event will be the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which begins Thursday. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal broke that news Monday morning:
Fox Sports Executive Producer David Neal is stepping down after this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup.
SBJ's story: https://t.co/szXt0C6xMw
— John Ourand (@Ourand_SBJ) July 17, 2023
Neal joined Fox Sports in 2012 after spending more than three decades at NBC, where his highlights included producing nine Olympics, four NBA Finals, two World Series and a Super Bowl pregame show. He also spent time at Univision, where he served as executive producer for their CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONMEBOL Copa America coverage in 2011, and helped to launch Univision Deportes (now TUDN). At Fox, he has specifically overseen their international soccer coverage, including three FIFA Women’s World Cups (including this one), two men’s World Cups, the 2016 Copa America Centenario, and key events for the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.
Fox’s World Cup coverage under Neal has been notable on several fronts. He came on board shortly after they surprisingly won rights to FIFA events from 2015-2022 (including two men’s World Cups and two Women’s World Cups) in late 2011, beating out favorites ESPN and NBC. And a big question then was what Fox’s coverage would look like, given the criticism many of their previous forays into soccer had drawn.
At that time, AA’s Matt Yoder wrote “Fox Sports has been atrocious in televising major soccer events. Not so much in the commentary department, but in how they present the sport. …Seriously, Fox, it’s on you to rid yourselves of the gimmicks and the dumbed down soccer broadcasts. No robots. No infrared cameras. No “football vs futbol.” Give World Cup viewers at least a shred of respect that they know what sport they’re watching and that soccer is a legitimate American sport.” And, under Neal, Fox did largely do that.
There were definitely some criticisms of Fox’s international soccer coverage under Neal, which we’ll get to. But the network generally used experienced announcers on all of those World Cups, gave matches remarkable exposure (particularly with the numbers on their linear broadcast network), deployed impressive in-match cameras and technology, built remarkable studio sets showing off the locales, and delivered a range of shoulder and studio programming (with some hits and some misses, but even the misses generally weren’t along the lines people had worried about when Fox initially won the rights). The post-mortems on that 2015 Women’s World Cup in particular illustrate how pleasantly many were surprised by what Fox did and how well it worked overall.
As noted, there were highly-criticized things during Neal’s run as well. One big one was the amount of remote coverage they’ve sometimes used for tournaments not in North America, particularly with four of six announcing teams calling matches off monitors from Los Angeles during the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia (which Neal personally tried to downplay as a “non-story“). Granted, Fox course-corrected for 2022 in Qatar with all announcers on site, but even that came around (disputed) reporting that they had initially planned to rely on more remote work before a sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways came through.
Beyond that, mileage may vary depending on what viewers want from their sports coverage. Fox made it very clear they weren’t eager to explore negative off-field stories about human rights and working conditions in Russia or Qatar, leaving that work to others. That won some praise for that from the stick-to-sports crowd, but criticism for it from those who wanted a fuller picture of what was going on in the host countries. (And not just puffy features on Stalin’s house.) 2018 also saw the network facing challenges around the USMNT not making the tournament, and their “second home team” coverage approach for Mexico was blasted by many USMNT fans. And they also ran into some issues with the studio analysts they hired for 2018 in particular, but to their credit, made a rare mid-tournament pivot there.
Some of Fox’s other analysts, particularly Alexi Lalas (who they brought in from ESPN in 2014, and who’s still there) and Eric Wynalda (who also came in from ESPN in 2012, took a hiatus in 2017 and 2018 to campaign for the job of U.S. Soccer president, then eventually left for coaching), have drawn notable criticism. But they’ve had their fans as well, and for every disliked figure, Fox has had several generally-liked ones, from Kate Abdo (although she’s exclusively working with CBS now, she was a key part of several Fox World Cups) to Ian Darke to JP Dellacamera to John Strong to Brad Friedel to Kelly Smith to Carli Lloyd. And even the approach to emphasize American commentators has generally been okay; it didn’t work with the most high-profile move they tried, with Gus Johnson (who never actually called a World Cup for Fox, but was being groomed to), but the soccer-experienced American announcers and analysts they’ve used for most World Cup coverage have worked out pretty well. And while Fox’s coverage has still sometimes been seen as overexplaining too much for soccer novices, that hasn’t been a universal opinion, and even many critics might say it hasn’t been to the degree they initially worried about.
The overall verdict on Neal’s tenure overseeing Fox’s FIFA coverage depends on one’s perspective. There’s plenty that can be criticized, and some of those criticisms are big deals to some. There’s also lots that can be praised, and some of the coverage decisions worked really well for some viewers. But the general, overarching analysis, trying to incorporate all praise and criticism from all corners, is likely that Fox’s FIFA coverage during Neal’s tenure wound up being well ahead of the largest fears many expressed when they won those rights. And that’s important, with them now having rights through the 2026 men’s World Cup (with how they got those rights being its own controversial situation).
Fox’s coverage of World Cups to date may not be perfectly calibrated for everyone, and perhaps especially not for knowledgeable hardcore fans. And there’s a lot that can be criticized. But their international soccer coverage has been far from the utter disaster some initially predicted, and their approach has plenty of fans of its own. And that’s a big step up from what many thought would happen back when they won rights. And Neal deserves a lot of credit for what he’s built there, and the level of positive reception it has received.